Clinton: The newest ‘New Democrat’

Clinton: The newest ‘New Democrat’

Democrats have a history of plucking presidential candidates out of obscurity: Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Republicans are supposed to go for whomever is next in line, particularly if they have run before: Richard M. Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney.

It looks like just the opposite for 2016.

In the latest Iowa poll, Hillary Clinton completely dominates the Democratic field with 56 percent of the likely caucus vote (she came in third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards). No other potential Democratic candidate gets more than single digit support. It’s Clinton’s turn.

And for the Republican nomination? The top choice of Iowa caucus-goers is “unsure” (36 percent), followed by Senator Marco Rubio (11 percent), Senator Rand Paul (10.5), Representative Paul Ryan (9), former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (8.7), New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (7.7) and 2012 Iowa caucus winner Rick Santorum (6.7). Meaning, the Republican race is wide open. In 2016, Republicans may very well end up plucking a candidate out of obscurity. Hey, it’s worked for Democrats before.

Clinton will be 69 years old on Election Day 2016 — the same age Ronald Reagan was on Election Day 1980. Could someone that old take over leadership of the New America coalition that Obama brought to power?

The New America is not primarily about age — though young voters are among its strongest supporters. It’s about diversity and inclusion. It’s hard to see how the election of the nation’s first woman president would not be a victory for diversity and inclusion.

Would young voters buy that argument? Apparently, yes. In this month’s Quinnipiac University poll, Clinton leads New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the strongest Republican contender, by better than two to one among voters under 30 (58 to 25 percent). Among older voters, Clinton and Christie run neck-and-neck.

Support from young voters is not a function of a candidate’s age. It’s a function of a candidate’s association with new ideas and change. Reagan got 59 percent of the youth vote in 1984 — when he was 73 years old.

After a president has been in office for eight years, voters usually want something they are not getting from the incumbent. One thing voters associate with Bill Clinton’s presidency is good times (in every sense of the word). While Americans believe the economy has improved under Obama, most are not ready to say times are good. In CNN polls, 35 percent say economic conditions are good today. When Clinton left office, the figure was 82 percent.

Since 1980, the Democrats’ biggest losses have been with white working-class voters, who were once the core of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. The only Democratic presidential candidate since 1980 who carried non-college whites was Bill Clinton in 1996 (51 percent for Clinton, 49 percent for Dole). In the 2008 Democratic primaries, non-college whites went decisively for Hillary Clinton over Obama. She wiped Obama out in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — states dominated by working-class white voters.

It’s a constituency that’s diminishing in size, however. Democrats can win without them — as Obama proved in 2008 and 2012. He built a new coalition based on minorities, women and younger voters.

But Democrats have still got to carry a respectable minority of working-class whites to remain competitive. In the Quinnipiac poll, Clinton gets a 44 percent favorable rating from non-college whites. Obama? 34 percent.

If Clinton were to run and win in 2016, it would be a terrible shock for Republicans. Just like George H.W. Bush’s victory in 1988 was for Democrats after two terms of Ronald Reagan. 1988 forced Democrats to wake up and say, “We can’t go on like this.”

Bill Clinton emerged to carry that message to Democrats. What Republicans need is a Clinton of their own.

Bill Schneider is a Reyters columnist.